Women in Catholic Leadership

SrBenedictaAnnie asked “why aren’t women more active in the church leadership?” which is a great question. It actually thrilled my little soul because of the way she phrased it. Instead of writing about why women aren’t priests, I get to address the much less discussed topic of why the leadership of the Catholic Church is not only male, but overwhelmingly male.

First, I should note that it is likely that Catholic women are more active in leadership than most people think. Women run Catholic schools and pastoral councils. Women are diocesan judges and advocates. The number of women working behind the scenes in the Vatican has also risen dramatically since John Paul II became pope. Also, when Catholics think of leadership, we do not just think of those who have temporal power. Even more important than priests, or even the pope, are the Saints who are the spiritual leaders of the Church. For Catholics, Mother Teresa was as much of a leader as John Paul II.

That said, there is no doubt that women have a minor role compared to men in Catholic leadership. Why? Because of sin. The Church is full of sinners, and it is oh-so-very difficult for any group to see the need to share its power with another group. Women had a great role in leadership in the early Church, but as the Church government was formed and influenced by the outside, the patriarchal form partially won out over the example set by Christ. Perhaps part of this was necessary to accommodate culture. Perhaps it was entirely the result of weakness. But in any case, the Catholic Church was clearly influenced by the culture in which it took shape.

To quote Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein):

In the early Church, women played an active part in the various congregational charities, and their intense apostolate as confessors and martyrs had a profound effect. Virginal purity was celebrated in liturgy, and for women there was also a consecrated ecclesiastical office–the diaconate with its special ordination–but the Church did not go so far as to admit them to the priesthood as well. And in later historical developments, women were displaced from these posts; also, it seems that under the influence of the Hebraic and Roman judicial concepts, there was a gradual decline in their canonical status.

Catholic authority is further complicated by the role of ordination. Because women are not priests, it is all too easy to refuse them a place in the group of decision-makers. Bishops have the greatest authority in the Church, and since women are not bishops, they are simply excluded from the highest positions of leadership. Thankfully women are now more frequently brought in as consultants. As far as I am aware, progress is slow but steady.

I remain hopeful because, like Pope Paul VI, Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross’ words seem only more true after several decades have passed:

a Catholic feminist movement was thought to be impossible when the interdenominational movement when into action. The concept which assumes that everything in the Church is irrevocably set for all times appears to me to be a false one. It would be naive to disregard that the Church has a history; the Church is a human institution and like all things human, was destined to change and to evolve; likewise, its development takes place often in the form of struggles. Most of the definitions of dogma are conclusive results of preceding intellectual conflicts lasting for decades or even centuries. The same is true of ecclesiastical law, liturgical forms–especially all objective forms reflecting our spiritual life.

The Catholic Church has made astounding improvements since the 1930s, and who knows what positions of leadership women will fill in another 70 years? I have great hope that the necessity of change will foster increased perfection under the direction of the Holy Spirit.

I suspect that this post will both fail to satisfy non-Catholics such as Annie, as well as shock many Catholics who would respond that the Church is the way She is because God wants it that way. I do not expect too much of a response with the busyness of the holidays, but for those Catholics who do read this and disagree, please feel free to chime in with your version of why women are not more active in Church leadership.

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8 Responses to “Women in Catholic Leadership”

  1. Allison 30. Dec, 2009 at 4:15 pm #

    This is a great post! Growing up in a very conservative Lutheran denomination, I was actually surprised by how involved women are compared to what I was used to in this Lutheran denomination. I think once you take note of how women are allowed to serve in the Church, it is actually more than one would think.

    It’s interesting that you note that women seemed to have more influence in the ancient Church. Perhaps there is a trend to more women helping out with Church needs, which is good to see. But then too, some people of today are influenced by culture and want what they see as “equality”. Not turning this into a discussion against women priesthood, as this isn’t what this post is about.

    Perhaps women do not have the same leadership abilities in the Church as men, but I do think they play just as important and vital role in the Church. In my mind the leadership does belong to the men, as God put Peter in charge of His Church and man in charge of many aspects of marriage. But by not being a leader does not mean that women do not play an important role. As you stated, many teachers are women, many councils are run by women, there are nuns, many Saints are women as well, and women help the future of the Church by instilling faith into their children while at home. In my mind, it’s just a differing of responsibilities, neither being more important than the other.

    I think it’s when one group looses respect for the other that we run into problems. Men not listening and taking advice from women, and women wanting to rule all aspects of faith and life. I think God put a balance into the relationship between the sexes, and when that balance is met, it works out the way he intended.

    Personally I think the further we stray from the traditional roles, the more liberal things become and we run into more issues. I understand that the customs and culture in which the Bible was written is vastly different than that of today, but I do think that God put things into the Bible for a reason and we should always remember this.

    Not sure that this will make a ton of sense, but there’s my thoughts! :)

    • Rae 30. Dec, 2009 at 5:24 pm #

      Thanks for your comment! I think that we’d have to start teasing out particular instances to determine whether we actually disagree (in my mind running a parish council counts as leadership, as does behind-the-scenes decision making & women going around preaching like Teresa of Avila).

      I agree that “once you take note of how women are allowed to serve in the Church, it is actually more than one would think.” It is actually a great example of how much the Church has changed in recent decades. I think those pastors who embrace the change actually have an easier time explaining reasons for the all-male priesthood than those who reject female altar servers etc. Because those pastors who are supportive of the role of women in the Church do not have to defend against the charges that they are just maintaining the old boys club, while those who won’t let women anywhere near the altar have to make up their own reasons.

      I think that it is of utmost importance to examine what we consider to be “traditional” roles & consider which aspects are from God, and which are human additions of limited use. But it would be silly to imagine that we can recreate things anyway we like and do not need the wisdom of those before us!

  2. Jenelle 30. Dec, 2009 at 9:16 pm #

    I agree with Allison and can’t say I have anything super eloquent to add. I actually discussed this topic with some liberal family members that just want woman priesthood for “equality” and “why not?” no spiritual reasons…just because society should call for it. My response was hopefully one full of love as well as one that defends my belief in the Church and its practices. I do not feel disempowered as they say I am and there are a few ways to explain that. Allison brought up some great points – saints, teachers, directors etc. My MIL also had a great point last night. Jesus did not put women in charge of the churches but he did give them some of the most important roles and moments. Who discovered that he had been raised from the dead? Not to mention who was first to know/give birth to him?

    I firmly believe that equal does not always mean the same. I like that we have unique roles and look forward to how those unique roles will stay true to our feminine nature while expanding as the years go on…

  3. Christy 30. Dec, 2009 at 10:14 pm #

    Interesting…. as I just noticed that within our Archdiocese, a WOMAN is being elevated to one of the highest administrative roles in the Catholic Education office. I think people forget that sometimes the real power comes from those behind the scenes and that you don’t see… the nuns, administrators, and good old mothers who are helping to guide everyone to our Father.

  4. Michelle 31. Dec, 2009 at 12:18 am #

    I have absolutely no problem with women in leadership roles if they are qualified and are truly the best candidates for the position. I can’t speak for all parishes, but in mine there is unfortunately the attitude that there needs to be an even split of the genders on all councils and leadership positions…even if NO women have applied or expressed a desire to be there. My husband is on our parish council and there is approximately the same number of men as women. Every year three members are replaced, this year there were two women and one man being replaced. After a month of announcements at mass and in the bulletin, three men applied to be parish council members. My husband and I were shocked when our pastor, with the advice of some of the women on the council, decided to turn away two of the three applicants that really wanted on the council because they were not women. We now have two vacant parish council positions while our pastor tries to find two women that would be willing to join.

    I personally don’t have a problem with whether someone on a council or in leadership is male, female, black, white, etc. I want people that are truly called by the Holy Spirit to be in these positions and aren’t just there to satisfy some quota. As a woman I don’t feel some need to have my gender represented by specifically having a women in a leadership position. If a person is truly being led by the Holy Spirit they will be prayerfully considering the needs of all of the Church regardless of gender, race, age, etc.

    • Rae 31. Dec, 2009 at 9:45 am #

      “I can’t speak for all parishes, but in mine there is unfortunately the attitude that there needs to be an even split of the genders on all councils and leadership positions…even if NO women have applied or expressed a desire to be there.”
      I hate unofficial quotas in situations such as this! If a group of people is dramatically lacking in participation in a parish, then I think it is worth investigating what can be done to get them involved, but no one should expect that a perfectly balanced subgroup of the parish will volunteer each time for each position.

      I hope that you have considered kindly making sure that the pastor is aware that the view of the current council members is not held by all the women in the parish. Isn’t the council lopsided with more women on it while waiting for positions to be filled?

  5. Trena 31. Dec, 2009 at 10:18 am #

    Great post. It seems like all the church functions at my parish are run by women. We rock! The only thing the women don’t do is the job of a priest. Our priest is pretty liberal, maybe a little too much, but the good part is he encourages women to participate and take charge.

  6. Marc Cardaronella 24. Jan, 2011 at 7:50 pm #

    Nice one Rae! ;-)

    I think things will come back around. There’s a ton of women in leadership at the parish level but in the diocese it tends to be more men. I think leadership demographics will change significantly in the next few decades. There was a kind of male, clergy dominated, “Father Knows Best” sort of attitude that had it’s peak in the 50′s and 60′s but I think that’s going away. That’s sort of crippled the Church today though. We’ve come to expect Father do do everything but guess what? There’s not that many Fathers any more! Lay people will have to fill those leadership positions.

    We’ll see more and more lay leadership on a partnership level with priests, not simply under them but co-equal. The pope has talked about this. I think a lot of that will be filled by women. At least I hope so. Look at the world in general. Have you seen the number of women in leadership in the internet marketing/social media marketing industry!

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